Punctuation for the nation

I have to admit to an addiction I acquired when I was young. I don’t think I meant to, or anything -it was forced on me at a very early age -but nonetheless I took to it like a kitten to cream. Everybody was doing it in those days -it was quite fashionable, I suppose, but perhaps I went a little overboard. I found it so powerful, and yet I could fit it quietly into my average day; it took up so little space, and yet helped me make it through my early days at school. I didn’t talk about it, of course, but it has ended up governing the rhythm of my thoughts, and the cadence of my speech ever since.

Miss Grundy, my supplier, was pleased at my obsessive use; I did it to please her, I think, but I suspect I would have discovered a source all on my own even if she had never showed up in my school. And now… well, now I don’t think I could get through a day without punctuation.

I’m not sure where this fascination comes from, though… I’d never seen an ellipsis in any of the Reader’s Digests that we used to stack in untidy piles in the bathroom; no semicolons dared to expose themselves in there -whether out of politeness, or because its usual readers would have been puzzled, thinking there was a typo, or had been put there to gross us out or something. I don’t recall many dashes either -no doubt they were edited out for slowing down the ingestion and assimilation of thoughts for which the Digest was supposedly designed. The same goes for colons: the beautiful twins -but perhaps it was feared they might have similar effects on the Reader’s digestion. No, I only remember the apostrophized ‘s on the front covers.

And yet, despite the sketchy provenance of my unrequited passion, it is hardly a love’s labour lost. I’m fairly certain it got me through my Grade 3 writing classes with Miss Grundy. She was a terror for apostrophes, I remember -she was obsessed with denoting possessive nouns and lived in fear that we’d forget the names of the words we’d so carelessly shortened in practicing our proto-cursive scribbles.

Her biggest concern was that we didn’t puncture the paper with the enthusiasm we apparently showed for our periods, however. The full-stop mechanism was never allowed to overshadow the dottings of an i, and it had to be done with care and the kind of respect we would use at home forking the peas on our plates when our mothers were watching.

That image puzzled me, and yet to this day I am still careful when I end a sentence I’ve written on the screen of my computer. Some laws are just too precious to risk contravening, even if no one is watching.

Still, despite my own lingering self-conscious and guilt-ridden addiction, the world around me seems to have managed to kick the habit… Okay, maybe just in the text messagers with their evident disgust for polite literary conventions; apostrophes and semicolons are evidently creatures of a distant, and for them, evidently unrequited past. Punctuation seems anathema, if not unnecessary to whatever their usually brief and rudely concise messages purport to convey. They are gradually reverting to the hieroglyphical power of Emojis and spur-of-the-moment abbreviations rather than attempting cryptic punctuation of their non-sentences. Maybe I’m just bitter, though -an elder mourning the need for cadence in the no longer spoken messages.

But just when I was beginning to adjust to a punctuationally bereft phone, with its existentially unclarified lists of seemingly jumbled words, an essay surfaced as unexpectedly as a harbour in an atoll in a storm. Its title was a shelter from the stormy blast, if not an eternal home: https://aeon.co/essays/beside-the-point-punctuation-is-dead-long-live-punctuation

It was written by Florence Hazrat at the University of Sheffield who was currently working on ‘parentheses in Renaissance romance’ at the time of the article. I mean, how much more dedicated to punctuation is it possible to be? Oh yes, and at the time she was also writing a book on the history and culture of punctuation. My kind of woman!

I was cheered on early in her essay to learn that there had once existed an international Apostrophe Protection Society, whose avowed purpose was ‘to call out misuse and spread good practice.’ Sadly it succumbed to changing styles, but judging from the public outcry over its closure, I have to wonder if most of them were actually crocodile tears from doing their Grade 3s in Winnipeg with Miss Grundy.

So, as Hazrat asks, ‘Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? … If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place?’ I mean, how useful is messing around with words anyway?

Well, for one thing, I like the idea that words are separated by little spaces. It’s hard enough to read a newspaper on a bus at the best of times, let alone quote passages from it to the person sitting next to me who is pretending not to have been trying to read it as well. But do word-spaces count as punctuation? Uhmm…

Well, ‘Around 200 BCE, Aristophanes of Alexandria wished to ease pronunciation of Greek for foreigners by suggesting small circles at different levels of the line for pauses of different lengths, emphasising the rhythm of the sentence though not yet its grammatical shape. That would remain a task for the 7th-century churchman and encyclopaedist Isidore of Seville. Isidore invented the period, comma and colon.’ Even if you were just reading, silently and only to yourself, you still needed pacing.

Anyway, Isadore ‘rethought Aristophanes’ punctuation, based on pauses when reading aloud, in terms of grammatical parts of the sentence: an utterance whose sense and grammar were complete would receive a dot at the top of the line, which would eventually migrate down to the bottom and become the full stop or period we know today. An utterance whose sense and grammar were complete but accommodated expansion would get a dot in the centre: the future colon. Lastly, an utterance that was neither complete in sense nor in grammar would be marked off with a dot at the bottom, evolving into the comma.’ It’s important to know where this stuff comes from, don’t you think? In other words, that ‘Meaning no longer needed to pass from eye to mind via voice and ear, but was directly – silently – apprehended.’ Actually, I think I kind of whispered while I pretended to read the words silently to myself back in Grade 3 -we were still allowed to mouth them at that stage. 

Hazrat expands on both the history and uses of punctuation in her essay, but all the while I couldn’t help thinking of the old days she had opened for me –my old days, that is. Especially the accurate forking of peas. I have always had a soft spot for peas, but throughout most of the year in the harshness of the prairie weather, actual virgin peas were unobtainable -they were late summer guests.

We had to make do with canned peas most of the year in Winnipeg, so the thought of actually trying to fork a pea that might roll away from you on the dish was a distant memory to a child more consumed with studying Jack Frost patterns on the kitchen windows than learning plate etiquette. And anyway, the idea of being able to capture one mushy pea with the sharp end of a fork rather than shovelling up a group of them for transit, was unthinkable. I don’t think Miss Grundy was from the prairies.

No, peas were for mashing, partly so they wouldn’t slip between the tines of the fork, but mostly for the fun of it. I never mentioned that in class of course, and anyway, I never once punctured the paper with my periods either… okay, maybe once; I think she figured I’d be pretty good with a plate of peas nonetheless.


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